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Surprise, Texas: The New Page-turning Novel From Folksinger Andy Wilkinson

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Andy Wilkinson, one of the Lone Star State’s finest singer-songwriters, just released his first novel. Entitled “Surprise, Texas”, the book is a story of “how we sometimes must become what we pretend to be.” Its inspiration came from Wilkinson’s encounter with celebrity look-a-likes at a music festival where he was playing. In this book, as in Wilkinson’s songs and poems, the landscape of Texas itself is a character, vivid and full of life.

Surprise, Texas: The New Page-turning Novel From Folksinger Andy Wilkinson

Photo: Justin Burrus

Wilkinson was born and raised in west Texas. When Andy was a young boy, his grandmother used to tell him stories about her famous uncle—the legendary rancher Charlie Goodnight. This personal connection with Texas history had a profound impact on Wilkinson and led to his belief in the importance of history as a means of learning deep truths about the human condition. Wilkinson went on to write and record the award-winning album “Charlie Goodnight,” a true Texas classic.

In 1972, Wilkinson earned his undergraduate degree in sociology from Texas Tech. Afterward, he started graduate work at the University of Denver and also worked as a police officer. “Policework for me gave me perspective on ideas, as much as anything, about myself,” he said. “When you’re a policeman, just like when you’re an artist or a writer, you’re a part of everything and apart from everything… The other thing was, it reinforced Hemingway’s statement that any man’s life, truly told, is a novel. When you’re around people in a variety of circumstances, you recognize that the human being is just a human being. Rich, poor, no matter what ethnicity or place that they come from.”

Surprise, Texas: The New Page-turning Novel From Folksinger Andy Wilkinson

Photo: Wilkinson at a reading of his novel, image by Justin Burrus.

For years, Wilkinson nursed a steady and unrelenting desire to pursue music. After moving back to Lubbock and spending another decade as a businessman, he took a huge leap of faith and left his day job in order to make music. Many well-received albums later, Wilkinson serves today as artist-in-residence at Texas Tech’s Southwest Collection and teaches songwriting.

At first, Wilkinson conceived of  “Surprise, Texas” as a screenplay for a film. However, he had already written one screenplay and was reluctant to write another. “That’s a treacherous business. In fact, Max Evans one time said to me, you know, when a movie gets made, it’s just a pure miracle. So I thought well, I’ll just write a novel. I had never written a novel—why not?” Wilkinson laughed.

Surprise, Texas: The New Page-turning Novel From Folksinger Andy Wilkinson

Photo: Friends and family read passages from Wilkinson’s novel at a special event, image by Justin Burrus

The novel rose out of a real experience. Wilkinson and musician friend Andy Hedges were set to play the Gene Autry Film and Music Festival in Gene Autry, Oklahoma. “One of the first thing you do when you’re going to a festival is that you get your packet, which has your nametag, schedule, paycheck, meal tickets, and hotel assignment. As we were walking toward this building where the festival was being held, there was this sort of crudely lettered sign, shaped like a hand, that said ‘Look-a-likes This-a-way.’” Wilkinson and Hedges had no idea what the sign meant, but they knew it wasn’t for them. They headed the opposite direction. “We walked into the building, and there’s this woman sitting at a table with a box of packets. So I walk up and say, I’m Andy Wilkinson, here to get my packet. And she says, Who are you supposed to be? And I said, I’m Andy Wilkinson. She said, You’re supposed to be Andy Wilkinson? I said, No, I am Andy Wilkinson—I’m a performer. She said, Oh, performers are over at that table. So I’m thinking this is the weirdest thing that’s happened to me in a long time. Then I walk over to the other table and it all gets cleared up—because around the corner comes a guy dressed up like John Wayne and a guy dressed up like Tonto and a guy dressed up like Gabby Hayes.”

The look-a-likes were playing the festival that weekend, signing headshots and posing for photos. “Andy Hedges and I made a lot of fun of them—not to their face, but to one another. There were some very funny exchanges, these people taking themselves way too seriously. So we’re driving back and we’re still making fun of them, but at some point, I had one of those realizations… I thought: well, wait a minute. Am I fundamentally different from these people? Or am I only different by degree? In other words, do I spend a lot of my time trying to be Andy Wilkinson?” He laughed. “Where’s the line between how I portray myself and what I really am? So I thought it would make a cool movie to have a character at that festival who had been a star at one time but was no longer. Maybe this person comes back to their hometown for a celebration, you know, and of course, the look-a-likes show up—and some crisis occurs. So all the look-a-like and the actor all have to step up and become what they portrayed to solve the crisis.”

Surprise, Texas: The New Page-turning Novel From Folksinger Andy Wilkinson

Photo: Friends and family read passages from Wilkinson’s novel at a special event, image by Justin Burrus

Celebrated novelist Max Evans read the book in manuscript and gave Wilkinson crucial advice. “I was writing about the part of the country that Max just loves. He said nobody writes about our place. And then he gave me some great, great advice. Because the novel had begun to go in all kinds of odd places, and I said to Max, I’m worried—should I throttle this back, should I try to make it less far out? And Max said, every time you write something, you got to write it like it’s the last thing you’ll ever write. Throw everything you got in it. And I thought, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

Surprise, Texas is available from amazon.com. Visit www.andywilkinson.org for more info on Wilkinson’s music and writings.